Sermon: Remembering the Stories that Form Us

Plumb Line

[Given on the Sunday, July 12, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Amos 7.8,9

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from his son Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior.

If you would allow me, I’d like to frame our time together around two questions: Who are we? What or who makes us who we are?

These are all questions of identity and naming, community and belonging. In a sense, these questions are not specific to Christian community, but we have been challenged as of late to re-engage these questions. God has set a plumb-line amidst God’s faithful people and we must constantly discern whether we are living into our potential as a community.

The cold-blooded, racially-motivated lynching of nine African American congregants of Emanuel A.M.E. Church (Charleston, S.C.), the unanswered questions surrounding the burning of (7 or 9) Black Churches and our response as an increasingly diverse community of faith to the prevalence of racism that transcends personal relationships and is in fact deeply ingrained and enshrined in the structures and institutions of our society says something about who understand ourselves to be and who and what makes us who we are.

Our response to the affirmation of Marriage Equality throughout the United States of America by the Supreme Court and the recognition of the ever-widening circle of God’s grace by the act of General Convention extending the full reach of all the sacraments, including Holy Matrimony, to all God’s children says something about who are and who or what makes us who we are.

When the tectonic plates of our individual and collective reality begin to shift under our feet, it is helpful to “come back to the middle” and to find again our center. 13th century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure describes God as “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

We must find our center in God whose center is everywhere. This was the premise behind Amos’s prophetic oracle. He left the southern kingdom of Judah to travel to the northern kingdom of Israel because the religious and political institutions had failed the people. Instead of being institutions that supported justice and righteousness – literally a just social order and right action for the good of the all people – they had become opulent, aloof, and removed from the people. Amos 2.7 has the prophet indicting the social elites who “trample the heads of the poor into the dust.” The people had lost their center, they had lost their focus. They had forgotten that the God in their midst, revealed to them through Torah, had a throne built on Justice and righteousness.

And into that gap between present and potential comes, the prophet – a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees – who is not from the guild of prophets nor a prophet by trade, but one who was on the outside of the society whom the Lord had brought from the margins with a message for the middle. He came with a message for the people that they had gone off kilter, they had gone askew, they were quite literally bent out of shape.

They had lost their communal story and identity. They had forgotten who they were and whose they were and as a result God had pronounced judgment upon them. God had set a plumb-line in their midst and they had been found wanting.

Who are we? Who or what makes us who we are?

The answer to this question for those of us in this room is multi-layered. We are at our most basic, spiritually molecular level children of God. Those of us who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have claimed our belovedness and follow the way of the cross as Christians. Those of us born into this church or those of us who are affiliated with this church are Episcopalians, inheritors of a catholic yet reform Christian faith interpreted via the three-legged stool of Holy Scripture, sacred tradition, and our God-given reason and lived out through a devotion to daily common prayer. Our identities transcend all of these labels. And yet the thing that is common to all of these and more is story and narrative. We come to understand who we are by hearing over and over the stories of collective identity. Our stories, individual and collective, help us to find our center and to know who we are and whose we are.

For we who seek the follow the way of the cross, the gold standard or the plumb line that God has set in our midst is Jesus Christ himself, the very image of God the Father, and yet one of the ways we discern the presence of Christ is through our stories. Jesus gives us our identity. He comes not to condemn us, but to bring us new life in his own life. He is our common story, a narrative that transcends tribe, race, or creed. It’s a narrative of redemption and story of salvation. He is our mooring and tether in our shifting world and our anchor amidst a story sea. Through him we can know who we are.

These past few weeks I’ve struggled immensely with my part of the story. The shooting in Charleston and hurtful rhetoric that characterized the conversation about the Confederate battle flag coupled with the responses from deeply faithful people regarding both the Supreme Court and General Convention decision have rocked my world.

And yet I heard God remind me to “find your center. Remember your story.” Remember that you are a beloved child of God, claimed by God in the waters of baptism, and ordained by God to serve this present age. You are a black man, a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers whose people have come “over a way that with tears has been watered… Treading their party through the blood of the slaughtered.” You are an Episcopalian who had to fight his way through a spiritual wilderness to find life and love in sacrament and community. In reminding me to “find my center” God was essentially saying “find me. Look at me. Fall in love with me again.”

Are you listening?

We must remember and tell our stories because they ground us in our journey. We must tell our stories because they inform how we see and experience the world. We just tell our stories because, if we tell them honestly, they will keep us humble when we remember that woven through our staggering steps and stammering tongues was the presence of a God who has nestled us from the rocking of our cradles and has promised to hold us even past the threshold of death.

I wonder what your story says. I wonder how your story grounds you in your faith and in your spiritual journey. I wonder how your story keeps you true to God.

God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, and when we are knocked off balance and our worlds are turned upside down, we have but to remember who we and whose we are. We have to remember who is in our midst – Jesus Christ, the very image of our loving God. We have but to recall our stories and God’s presence therein to guide us towards our true home – the ever-expanding circle of God’s gracious love.

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